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Reading "Martyred Signs": Reformation Hermeneutics and Literature



Reading “Martyred Signs”: Reformation Hermeneutics and Literature


Stephanie Meredith Bahr

Doctor of Philosophy in English

University of California, Berkeley

Professor David Landreth, Chair

This dissertation—Reading “Martyred Signs”: Reformation Hermeneutics and Literature—contends that Reformation struggles over Biblical interpretation generated a violently unstable hermeneutic environment and exerted a defining influence on Renaissance literature. Although the Reformation hinged on the most fundamental question of literary study—how to interpret texts—most literary scholars encounter these Biblical hermeneutics only indirectly, reduced to doctrinal bullet points. Such a distillation misrepresents as stable product an unstable process fraught with violence, in which the stakes of interpretation were torture, execution, and damnation. Through close analysis of Catholic Thomas More’s and Protestant William Tyndale’s theological polemics, my first chapter shows that the very hermeneutic distinctions often reified by current scholarship—that Catholics embraced myriad allegorical senses, whereas Protestants insisted on a solitary literal sense—were actually in perpetual collapse. Although More’s and Tyndale’s interpretive theories are wildly different, their interpretive practices become nearly indistinguishable. I argue that their vicious print battle and its violently unstable hermeneutics shaped Renaissance textuality, poetics, and the fraught categories by which Renaissance readers understood reading.

The dominating pressures of these theological hermeneutics cannot be limited to explicitly religious contexts, nor is their influence a purely passive, environmental phenomenon. My next three chapters demonstrate that Thomas Wyatt’s lyric poetry, Edmund Spenser’s epic allegory, and William Shakespeare’s commercial drama actively take up the challenges these violent and contradictory hermeneutics present. Both stylistically and thematically, Wyatt’s verse hangs poised between More and Tyndale’s hemeneutic ideals, expresses a profound longing for Tyndale’s ideal of the stable, literal sense that it treats as unachievable due to the irredeemable corruption of the multitude on whom More’s ideals depend. Whereas Wyatt’s poetry embodies the uneasy tension between Protestant ideals and Protestant practice, Spenser’s poetry seeks to resolve that tension. Confronted with the iconoclasm and anti-aestheticism of the many Protestants who (like Tyndale) condemned romance, allegory, and poetry, Spenser’s Faerie Queene implements all three to create an orthodox depiction of Protestant doctrine and hermeneutics. Figural allegory is the only way for Spenser to transform the inward, illegible process of reading-as-salvation into an externally legible pedagogical narrative, yet this narrative is inescapably violent—populated by demonic doppelgangers and rife with physical and psychological torture, murder, and rape. A similar brutality dominates Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. In Titus, Reformation disputes about whether to read figuratively or literally play out on stage as characters brutally literalize the conventional metonymic fragmentation of the body and as the Romans and Goths enact narratives on the bodies of their enemies. Titus dramatizes the interpretive instability of the Reformation as rape, murder, dismemberment, and cannibalism. By reinvesting in early vernacular theology, my project recovers one of the earliest sources of hermeneutic theories in English, which yoked the physical and psychological violence of the Reformation to the very act of interpretation.

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